Thursday, 13 July 2017

R.I.P. Tommy Simpson 1937-67 (died July 13, stage 13 of the Tour, Mont Ventoux)

Something of Simpson's happy-go-lucky
character is communicated here
Tommy Simpson died 50 years ago today

It's fifty years today since Tommy Simpson died on the Ventoux on the 13th stage of the 1967 Tour, so I thought I'd just put up this simple post to honour him.

In William Fotheringham's excellent book Put me back on my bike, which was published in 2002, he makes a stray comment to the effect that Simpson paved the way for other non-Continental riders to succeed at a quintessentially continental, mainland European activity: professional road racing.

Fotheringham then mentions Lance Armstrong at a time when we didn't know for sure that he'd doped.

At a later remove I'm sure Fotheringham would have also mentioned Wiggins.

The irony of course is the doping, perhaps adding a coda in the form of therapeutic use exemptions and jiffy bags.

Simpson was spending the equivalent of four year's wages on a single season's amphetamines, going after what was considered at the time to be the Rolls-Royce of amphetamines, Tonedron. On the day he died he had three ampoules in his jersey pocket, two and a half taken. He'd drunk cognac to dull the pain of an upset gut, and probably Coca Cola earlier on a big stage in high Provencal heat. All these substances de-hydrated him, on the back of having had diarrhoea for three days. In the massive heat as he came up the final sections of the mighty Ventoux, when above the tree line it becomes blinding white stone and a sun-baked oven of scree, his body signalled enough and he began to weave. Helped back on he continued for five hundred metres before collapsing forever from exertional heatstroke, greatly exacerbated by dehydration and by the drugs and alcohol. His fingers had to be prised off the handlebars and he was completely dry to touch. His team member was convinced that he had died on the bike. In any sense except the clinical, I think that's probably true. His death takes its place in a long row of completely avoidable British deaths in the 'amateur' pursuit of something crazy. Donald Campbell had died earlier in the same year in January 1967, pursuing a speed record on Lake Coniston.

And yet there is so much to admire. Simpson was as obsessed about his diet and his training and in fact every single aspect of his life, in pursuit of victory. Doping was merely his reluctant (but inevitable, and wouldn't we have done it in his shoes?) acceptance of what was rife among virtually all European riders at the time, as indeed it has been since for so many others. He was careless about his own well being when it came to winning but he was a brilliant rider and a brilliant winner. He also paid the ultimate price for winning at any cost, which leaves a question mark that we all have to answer for ourselves.

I timetrialled Ventoux on Monday June 26, 2017, with some other
journalists, wearing Simpson's team cap as a mark of respect. The recently renovated memorial to Simpson
was completely free of the normal clutter of bidons and caps, possibly because anything left there is blown
away by the wind, or because it is finally being managed.*
*Thanks to BMW UK and Rapha Travel for making this trip happen.

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Richard Lofthouse

Richard Lofthouse